Christmas Day, Rome, 800 AD (Great Empires)


(Miniature showing Pope Leo III crowning Charlemagne emperor on Christmas Day, 800 AD; from Chroniques de France ou de Saint-Denis, vol. 1, second quarter of the 14th century. Image: Wikipedia)

In the great basilica of St. Peter’s, Rome, Pope Leo III celebrated mass. It was suppose to be like any other Christmas mass of recent years that celebrated the birth of Christ. Except on this particular glorious day, an additional ceremony was preformed. Pope Leo III, on this day, 25th December, 800 AD, placed a crown on Charlemagne, the king of the Franks and announced him to the congregation, as Augustus et Imperator (Majestic Emperor).

The repercussions of this act would be felt around the corridors of the papal office, the streets of Rome, western Europe and among the Byzantines. If one was to ask Leo III what his intentions in doing so were, he might well say for his own protection and the protection of the Catholic faith.

When Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne ‘Majestc Emperor’ it was done with no explicit connection between the Roman Empire (Byzantium) and that of what Charlemagne carved out in his great victories across western Europe. However, some may disagree and point out that the coronation itself was indeed a culmination of Charlemagne’s reign and success as a military commander. He was western Christendom’s savior and protector, so why not recognise him with the highest of honors. He had surpassed being just a mere king.

So as, Charles I (Charlemagne) knelt praying, Pope Leo III placed upon his head a magnificent jewel-encrusted crown. Some reports claim that Charlemagne was angered rather than flattered by Leo’s gesture. Other reports claim that he was taken by surprise, but many historians believe that this was not the case. How could anyone fail to notice a beautiful crown sitting near or on the altar just a few feet away ? Maybe he was in shock or maybe he was worried about the trouble it would undoubtedly stir amongst the Byzantines ?

If you asked the Byzantines about the whole affair, their reaction to Pope Leo’s actions on Christmas morning was of dismay.

The Byzantines considered Charlemagne (and his successors) to be pretenders to a throne that they (the Byzantines) were clearly not. Constantinople tried its best to pretend that the new German Empire (Holy Roman Empire) did not exist.

But when co operation between the two stifled they reluctantly admitted that as a German monarch Charlemagne was an Emperor, but not Roman. (The Byzantines would accept Charlemagnes “personal” title of Emperor in 812, but were not willing to extend that same courtesy to his successors.) The Byzantines also insisted that they alone were the only true heirs of the Caesars.

The Franks for their part (in years still to come), acted like a “spoilt younger sibling”. They viewed the Byzantines in the east as “soft, effeminate and unworthy of the name Roman. But at the same time were a little bit insecure and jealous of the older Empires greater legitimacy.” This pattern would continue for over six hundred years and Constantinople would never ever recognise the Holy Roman Empire as its equal.

Charlemagne, at first, it seems went into “damage control” and even offered his hand in marriage to Byzantine Empress Irene, in an attempt to reunite the two halves of the empire. Negotiations to this diplomatic union were quickly extinguished by a new usurper, Nicephorus I.  The new court in Constantinople made it absolutely clear that it would be a cold day in hell before their empire was handed over to a barbarian.

Charlemagne, to his credit did his absolute best during the next twelve years (leading to his acceptance as ‘Emperor’ in 812 AD) to persuade or convince the Byzantines that he was not trespassing on their titles or claims to be the heirs of the Caesars. Even when the Byzantines found themselves in all sorts of bother, in defeat at the hands of the Bulgars, at Verbitza, in Bulgaria, where they were massacred (including the Emperor Nicephorus I ), Charlemagne was still willing to be fair and reasonable in the terms he sought for his own recognition as Emperor. He eventually, to some degree, won them over with Emperor Michael I Rhangabe.


(Image of Pope Leo III, sometimes referred to as Charlemagne’s Pope.)

Background to the day’s coronation

Lets pause here for a moment, as we trace back to the events that shaped Christmas day, 800AD. What we do know about the events leading to Charlemagne coronation is that Pope Leo III and his office found itself in grave danger from violence within and external pressures beyond the bounds of Rome.

Pope Leo III problems as pope were immediate. He had won election to the papal office, only to be subjected to taunts and abuse from the previous pope’s family and friends (Hadrian I 772-95 AD) about his suitability and breeding. He wasn’t a Roman, and that didn’t sit well with the Roman nobility, who expected the office of the Pope to pass to one of them. Therefore, it didn’t take long for Hadrian’s ancentors to plot against Leo’s demise. In a bloody attack in April 799 on the streets of Rome, Leo was almost beaten to death and an attempt was made to mutilate him. As luck would have it, he was saved by friends, who helped him escape Rome to Charlemagne’s court in Paderborn. The king of the Franks was unable to resolve Leo’s troubles at the time, he was almost at the end of his greatest conquests of grabbing land and converting barbarians to Christianity, in particular the Saxons. In November 799, he sent Leo back to Rome with Frankish escorts, with an eye on sorting out alleged charges against Leo that had developed, when it best suited him. Charlemagne, like his father was a great protector of the church and he promised Leo that he would come to his aid in due course. Charlemagne did eventually arrive in Rome, in August 800 AD, and by the beginning of December held a tribunal in an attempt to restore some dignity back to the papal office. Officially, Charlemagne had no right or jurisdiction to hold the tribunal, nevertheless, when no opponents of Leo came forward to accuse him of wrongdoing, the matter felt resolved. This followed a public declaration from Leo of his innocence two days before Christmas.

It is important to note that both Charlemagne and Leo possibly knew that their actions to resolve the matter wasn’t legal in the strictest sense. Technically, only an emperor had the right to pass judgement over Leo’s embarrassing situation, but the closest emperor was all the way in Constantinople.

In the Byzantine world, the five patriarchates of the church Rome, Antioch, Jerusalem, Alexandria and Constantinople, in theory had an equal voice in church matters and fell under the control of the Roman emperor. However with three of the five –Alexandria, Jerusalem and Antioch- all but gone, swept into a Muslim dominated world, Rome and Constantinople stood alone. With Constantinople so far away, the Popes and maybe Leo III too, would over time begin to assert their own authoritarian claims, henceforth, Leo’s bold decision to crown Charlemagne emperor on Christmas day.

Why should Leo look to Constantinople, when the King of the Franks made for the perfect choice as protector and emperor ? The East and West had split politically a very long time ago and maybe now the Popes in Rome were braver in taking issues into their own hands. Without a doubt, Leo had created a precedent in the west.

The little matter of a vacant throne in Constantinople, according to Leo (and Charlemagne), may have also been a reason for Charlemagne surprise coronation. Empress Irene was a woman, and how could the Byzantines allow a woman to rule the Roman empire ? Only a male heir could rule the empire and with no living male heir, did Leo see fit to create one of his own in Charlemagne ? To the Byzantines this argument would have been utter nonsense and ridiculous. Regardless of her poor record as Empress, Irene was still the legitimate ruler in Constantinople in Byzantine eyes.

Charlemagne’s legacy

Not since the final days of Romulus Augustulus, before he was overthrown by Odoacer and the western imperial regalia sent back to Constantinople, would a new emperor reappear in the west.

The idea of a new Emperor in the west, and that Charlemagne the champion of the Christian faith should be that new emperor, whether a surprise or planned action on either Leo’s or Charlemagne’s part or both, would change the political, social and religious landscape of Europe in the years that followed.

Leo III had taken upon himself to crown Charlemagne, and with one swift act Charlemagne lay claim to govern and preside over much of western Europe and also bring into his protection the papal territories. Charlemagne was a man that took seriously his new imperial dignity and history shows that he even went as far as exchanging ambassadors with the caliphate in Baghdad.

He would set up an impressive imperial court at Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen) and gather many of the best teachers, poets and philosophers in western Europe to his court. He would also seek out and summons the most gifted philosophers of Italy and as far as Ireland, who studied Greek and still knew of the days of old, however dim, of Roman traditions. He was furthermore, a great patron of the arts and education. For an illiterate emperor, he undertook lessons in Latin and some Greek, but more importantly he took the task to educate his sons with the best the west had to offer in teachers.

It was through his sons that he hoped to leave a ‘holy’ empire, however, it did not survive long after him. His sons would partition his territories into smaller kingdoms. But he had helped protect, guide and ‘create’ a Roman Catholic Church whose Frankish fingerprints are felt through to today. Possibly from Christmas day onwards Charlemagne’s influence helped engineer the split or schism between the Eastern and Western churches ? Dreams of a Europe with one Emperor, one Church, one Christianity and one Empire would be lost forever. As a result, East and West would go their own way. We are left with ‘two’ empires, two churches, two holy seas, a Roman and Orthodox view of Christianity.

Yet given all the debate and controversy, the king of the Franks was a formidable conqueror, who fully deserves the title granted to him- Charles the Great (Charlemagne).Image

(Statue of Charlemagne in St. John’s church, Mustair (Grisons), 9th century. Image Wikipedia)

Notes and Further Reading

Lars Brownworth, Lost to the West, Crown, 2009.

David Bentley Hart, The Story of Christianity, Quercus, 2007.

Friedrich Heer, The Holy Roman Empire, Phoenix Press, 1968.

John Julius Norwich, Byzantium: The Apogee, Viking, 1991.

John Julius Norwich, The Popes: A History, Chattos & Windus, 2011.

Hywell Williams, Emperor of the West, Quercus, 2010.


Filed under Great Empires, On this day in history...

6 responses to “Christmas Day, Rome, 800 AD (Great Empires)

  1. This is a magnificent article! Great job!

  2. One of my favorite time periods. I just finished re-listening to the ‘Thor’s Angels’ podcast from Hardcore History a few days ago. Dealt at great length with the coronation of Charlemagne.

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